Ashya King’s fight for Proton Beam Therapy

A few weeks ago, an international manhunt propelled the story of Ashya King into the spotlight: a boy whose parents removed him from hospital and escaped to Spain where they were seeking an alternative cancer treatment, without the consent of their doctor.  The word alternative here does not refer to feeble homeopathic treatments that bare no scientific vindication, but to the treatment known as Proton Beam Therapy (PBT).


  Ashya’s parents took their son to Spain when they decided they were  unhappy with the range of treatment offered in the UK. Public uproar ensued as police in Madrid held the parents for 72 hours while their son continued to receive treatment in Malaga. The media uproar surrounding the case of Ashya soon subsided as political pressure mounted, resulting in their release.

Senior politicians such as Nick Clegg attempted to convey a human face on the case: “my heart goes out to Ashya’s parents” he said. David Cameron called on ‘common sense’ to prevail and Theresa May urged the Crown Prosecution Service to review the case.  While seeming generous and heartfelt, it is a shame to see how the political class attempt to crash tragic and personal affairs of families in order to gain political advantage.

Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, personally committed himself to send a senior Oncologist to Ashya King; a move which could easily be interpreted as an effort to demonstrate a caring and generous Coalition-run NHS.  Initially the NHS refused to fund Ashya’s treatment, but the NHS made a U-turn recently and offered to fund his care in Prague under EU healthcare arrangements.

Proton Beam Therapy


This image shows a CT scan of a proton beams focusing on a tumour.  You can clearly see the beam as it zones in on the tumour. 

It’s important to understand why Ashya’s parents went through such anguish and heartache in order for their son to receive PBT.  Proton Beam Therapy may sound like something plucked straight out of a Sci-Fi movie, but it is in fact a well-established radiotherapy technique used in the battle against cancer, although still not generally offered on the NHS.

Normal cancer treatment radiotherapy uses high-energy beams of radiation to destroy cancerous cells, but surrounding tissue can also be damaged as it targets entire areas of the body including healthy cells. This can lead to side effects such as nausea, and can sometimes disrupt how organs function. This lack of control with traditional radiotherapy results in physicians having to use a reduced and therefore less effective dosage in order minimise damage to surrounding areas of the cancerous area.

Proton Beam Therapy differs to conventional cancer treatments in that it offers a more targeted attack on cancerous cells. It uses beams of protons (sub-atomic particles) to achieve the same cell-killing effect. A “particle accelerator” is used to speed up the protons, which are accelerated then beamed into cancerous cells, effectively killing them.

Protons are positively charged and therefore attract the negative electrons that orbit the nucleus of atoms.  When entering the body protons ionise atoms causing damage to vital DNA in cell nuclei. Specific cell functions are destroyed within the DNA, including the vital reproductive ability to divide and multiply. Unlike conventional radiotherapy, in proton beam therapy the beam of protons stops once it “hits” the cancerous cells. This means that proton beam therapy results in much less damage to surrounding tissue

Ashya King’s case is just one of many that could benefit from this alternative cancer treatment.  It is also important to remember that well established radiotherapy techniques are also effective and should not be shunned.   The treatment always depends on the type of cancer the patient suffers from.

A recent study of eleven developed nations showed the NHS to be the most efficient and least expensive healthcare system, with the USA languishing at the bottom of the pile.  While it remains true that doctors should have the final verdict on which treatment is best for their patients, let’s hope that the precedent this case sets allows for a more flexible NHS in future. To have the NHS in direct communication with foreign medical services on a regular basis would allow freedom to travel to receive the treatment that is best for the patient.  After all, a person’s anatomy is the same no matter where they’re from.

Michael Owen

Image courtesy of Accelerators For Society & Medical Daily

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